Forbidden Pleasures, Cuban Treasures

Jul 11, 2016 Avatar Hilton Smith Hilton Smith

If your main desire to go on a Cuba vacation is for the rum and cigars, you are missing the larger picture.

If you are going to Cuba to experience a society on the verge of profound change, you are choosing correctly. As a serious traveler, you cannot separate the Cuba of today from its recent history.

Their truly unique recipe was the Batista dictatorship of the 1950’s which was very friendly to the United States. Some became very prosperous, but most Cubans saw corruption and greed.

The revolution in early 1959 changed the dynamic and the new leaders went another direction. US lawmakers responded with a travel and trade embargo that has lasted in one form or another for over 50 years. You still see once impressive mansions and homes in Havana that housed one family.

Today most buildings are crumbling and multiple families live in them.

The US embargo effected as well multi-national companies who could not do business with the US and Cuba at the same time.

The result has been a country frozen in time. Importation of goods from the US and most other Western countries was prohibited or severely restricted. Cubans became resourceful at recycling and reusing most everything from the hundreds of 1950’s cars to scrap metal and discarded building materials.

The average Cuban has a ration card for basic food each month. There are no Home Depots or Costco’s.

Cuba is the largest Caribbean island, about eight times the size of Puerto Rico and with a population of about 12 million. Only about 2.1 million live in the capital, Havana.

My recent 5-day trip was exclusively to Havana. It was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying trips I have ever taken. To see Havana now at this juncture was a dream come true for me.

Our Eastern Airlines charter jet made the 234-mile trip from Miami in less than one hour. We may as well had been landing on Mars. The US charter terminal had all the basics but nothing more. Our travel guide, who came with us, then introduced us to our 27 year old Cuban guide, who would be with us for the 5 days. He was full of energy with an openness I had not expected.

The five on the tour were split between two hotels, The Saratoga and the Telegrafo. The hotels were ok, but not international 5-star quality. There is no such thing yet in Havana. Both hotels were in Old Havana and well located for touring and self exploring.

In the next several days we did the type of licensed “people to people” plan that fits the current US regulations for US citizens visiting Cuba:

Old Havana, with its four main squares, The Hemingway former residence and tower, Central Havana, The Plaza of the Revolucion and, of course, the famous Malecon along the seawall. There were some areas of the spread out city that looked like Southern California, others abandoned and neglected. There was a full range of contrasts.

What is left of the architecture of Havana is beautiful and more European than expected. In places there is activity and some restoration. Still there are blocks which have been decaying for years. Much of the new activity is with the privately owned paladars, smaller restaurants now allowed to open and serve the public. Some of the old houses have been converted to them. In design they are impressive, and the food was tasty. Still, at one time or another all five of us got distress from the food. Of course we knew not to drink the tap water.
One treat was a long ride in a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Convertible which now has a Hyundai engine. The owner was quite proud; many Cubans with old cars are using them as taxis for income.

Art is everywhere, with makeshift projects and art objects dotting the neighborhoods such as Callejon de Hamel and Fusterland. Here local artists have recaptured and enhanced art projects at their own expense. An abandoned water tank has become a makeshift art gallery for local art students. An old grill from the front of a car is now a large eagle sculpture.

Live music is everywhere as well, with an opera singer in a church, in local bars and restaurants, and even at the hotel for breakfast in the mornings.

One memorable evening was spent at the iconic 1930’s Hotel National listening to the Buena Vista Social Club and sipping 12-year-old Cuban rum. The hotel is stuck in time. Nevertheless, there is so much to impress with a strong Cuban spirit, culture and passion.

Of course, how can you go to Havana and not go to a local cigar factory. The one we went to in Central Havana has over 500 workers in huge rooms, all rolling cigars by hand. A careful system of selection of the correct tobacco, the right mixture, assembly and quality control is done to retain their renowned reputation. A class of 150 that started seven months ago is down to 9 new workers who are left to finish training.

In Cuba there were always surprises. The Christopher Columbus Cemetery impressed much more than the famed Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. The Cuban version impressed for the spaciousness of the displays and the attention to detail. Marble brought from Italy, along with artisans, made some of these crypts more expensive than the aging houses around them.

At the moment, US credit cards are almost universally unusable in Cuba, as are US cellphones. There is internet occasionally. Forget ATM’s and foreign travelers must use CUC’s which are taken about everywhere. Most Cubans use a different currency. There is aso no GPS as such. In the Cuba of today, it is very difficult to find specific areas out of the city center unless you speak Spanish.

Change is happening, with new hotel projects in the works and some degree of changes in restrictions. I believe more Cubans are looking for some sort of change, but what Havana will look like in five years is anyone’s guess.
In September, the first scheduled air flights in over 50 years will begin from the US to outlying Cuban airports. Several weeks later, Havana will start receiving 20 scheduled flights a day from various US cities. Even with these new flights, there continues to be US-imposed travel restrictions on its citizens.
Ignore these at your own risk. Nevertheless, the more severe isolation of Cuba by the US will come to an end.What this will mean for the future of Cuba and its unique culture and spirit is hard to say. I am very glad I was able to see it now before the changes come. Serious travelers be warned.
Much of the US embargo still stands and that includes any sale of Cuban products here. Fortunately, for those Americans lucky to go to Cuba, they can now bring back a limited amount of goods. A total of $400.00 in Cuban items can be brought back. Within that limit, $100.00 can be in the form of Cuban cigars and rum.
I returned with my $100 quota of Santiago de Cuba 12 Anos rum and cigars (for friends). I will enjoy that rum with fond memories of five days in Havana. If you want to see Cuba now, contact me and I can get you there.